It was a rare night for Rolling Stones archivists: a couple of hours after their former bassist Bill Wyman departed the stage at nearby Covent Garden, their implacable drummer sauntered on to the bandstand at London's most famous jazz venue. As the Stones' unfailingly precise timekeeper, Watts had been separated from his first love jazz, particularly improvised bebop for many years. Then, in 1985 he launched the 29-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra, a sideline that continued between the Stones' world domination campaigns.
The venture proved no fleeting dalliance the Stones may keep him in the eccentric-English-gentleman style to which he's accustomed, but regular forays with his quintet, a 1991 Charlie Parker tribute and last year's liaison with the session drummer Jim Keltner have sustained his artistry.
For the first set on the opening night of his fortnight-long, two-sets-per-night residency Watts's thin, almost wraith-like figure was immaculately clad in white tailored duds. The famous granite face that has gazed out from behind the kit at countless international stadia was suffused with joyful satisfaction as the band took their places for an opening foray in Cotton Club era Ellingtonia, "Mainstem".
A balanced mix of aged experience (tenor player Evan Parker, Watts's pre Stones accomplice bassist Dave Green) and fiery young blood (trumpeter Henry Lowther), the band, the cream of Brit jazz talent, were perfectly matched to the leader's unfussy, deprecating and easy-going approach. Pete Townsend once said Watts's Sixties contemporary Keith Moon drummed like a playful puppy, eager to join in with everyone and always determined to be the centre of attention; Watts's style is that of a wily fox, watchful, alert, but happy to hold back and ride the outer reaches of his kit while the soloists make their stand.
The result is a rich, expansive music and Watts's enjoyment was visibly enhanced by the percussive foils of Afro Cuban-accented conga player Luis Jardim and scintillating vibes man Anthony Kerr. Though he's just celebrated his 60th birthday, Watts is still energised by the possibility of musical exploration and adventure, exemplified by the Spanish inflected "Anthony Dice" where the beautiful, cross-patterned brass centred on Parker's eruptive clarinet.
Despite the many homages to American heroes and the rich array of influences, the Tentet has an underlying wistful Englishness. Often viewed as second best, or at least as a very selective club, the English jazz scene was a vital ingredient in Sixties rock'n'roll generally, and the Stones particularly. More power to the drummer man for showing it's still a vibrant, joyful and deeply rewarding scene.Reuse content